uncovers secret lives of famous politicians, writers
Elms, psychology professor at UC Davis, has written an interesting
book "Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography
and Psychology'' (Oxford University Press, $25) but those
who know what his next book's going to be about can't help
but ask about it.
me something about Elvis,'' I asked Elms during an interview
with Elisabeth Sherwin.
Goldman was wrong on both counts,'' he replied, ``but that
will be another book.'' Goldman, you may recall, wrote a
highly unflattering book about Elvis Presley a few years
ago that included a diagnosis of the rock star as a split
personality and a delusional paranoid.
says Goldman is a good example of an author who tried to
employ a psychobiographical technique and failed utterly.
Goldman attempted to augment his Elvis biography with a
serious psychological analysis when all he really did was
shove this famous person into a pathological pigeonhole,
said Elms. (If you can't wait, Elms has written an essay
on Elvis that's included in a book by Davis resident Geri
DePaoli, ``Elvis + Marilyn.'' DePaoli will be signing copies
of that book at noon on Dec. 17 at The Avid Reader in downtown
says bad psychobiographers are usually scornful of alternatives
to the theories they choose. Good psychobiographers are
usually open to several interpretations and give detailed
evidence for choosing whatever theory they back. An example
of a good psychobiography is Doris Kearns Goodwin's ``LBJ
and the American Dream.'' Bad would be Fawn Brodie on Richard
Nixon or Nancy Clinch on the Kennedy family. Elms say a
good psychobiography can rival the very best traditional
biographies in the insights it offers Ï in fact, the best
biographies today include psychobiographical elements.
"Uncovering Lives'' Elms uses examples of his own work
taking closer looks at Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Isaac
Asimov, L. Frank Baum, Vladimir Nabokov, Jimmy Carter, George
Bush, Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger. He includes a
wonderful how to chapter Ï literally, how to gather the
clues, published and unpublished, that when painstakingly
assembled will form a portrait of the person you want to
write about. And again, he gives us clues about his Elvis
never requested an interview with Elvis Presley, but I did
address a series of questions to him and his managers fairly
early in his career. I got answers, too, from Colonel Tom
Parker's top assistant, Tom Diskin...but his protectiveness
toward Elvis was already quite clear.'' In the years since
the death of Elvis, Elms says he's dreamed several times
that he has interviewed Elvis at length.
I'm never able to remember his answers when I wake up,''
Elms writes. Elms has been working on his Elvis book on
and off for 10 years, as well as other works of scholarly
research, fiction and even poetry. He is a member of the
Davis Writers' Group and acknowledges that group for helping
him with "Uncovering Lives.'' Indeed, Elms has a strong
interest in fiction. He says he's about 80 percent of the
way through a psychobiographical novel called "Jung
in Africa,'' which he put aside when he got the contract
for "Uncovering Lives.''
now plan to go back to it,'' said Elms. ``I'm trying to
stay as true to his character and events as possible.''
Carl Jung did take a trip through East Africa and down the
Nile to Cairo with three interesting traveling companions
over a six-month period. That much is known, but Elms is
filling in the blanks with a reasonable yet fictional account.
Elms went to high school in Kentucky, spent his undergraduate
years at Penn State and went to graduate school at Yale.
for me, California was the promised land,'' he said. His
family lived in San Diego for a while when Elms was in grade
school. He wanted to get back to the West Coast. So after
teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for
three years, he came to UC Davis in 1967. After all these
years on the job, he says there are still professional drawbacks
for those starting out in psychobiography.
of the realities of writing a psychobiographical thesis
is this--you may have difficulty getting a job in psychology,''
said Elms. Still, a recent UCD graduate student who wrote
his thesis on the alcoholic, self-destructive writer James
Agee was able to land a university job.
is getting somewhat easier to be a psychobiographer in the
psychology field,'' said Elms. ``We're developing clear
guidelines about what is good research and what is not.''